Noe Valley Voice June 2008

How Green Is My Valley: A Gift to the Street

By Hilary Gordon

Walk down the north side of 24th Street some Sunday morning, and as you stroll past number 3982, you will feel a change of atmosphere. Suddenly there are leaves rustling above your head and flowers spreading at your feet. For a moment the street noise is dimmer. Dappled sunlight teases the senses, while yellow wildflowers and purple agapanthus arch and sway.

And then it's over. You've walked past the shop Just for Fun, where a small sidewalk garden has replaced the concrete between the street trees planted last year. Sidewalk gardens can pack a lot of beauty into a few square feet. They are easy on the eyes because they green and soften our streets. But they also do their share for the environment.

Sidewalk Gardens Protect the Bay

How do these green islands help? Each winter when we have rainy weather, the stormwater floods into our sewers, bringing with it a year's worth of oil and dirt washed from our streets and sidewalks. In a heavy storm, rainwater can overwhelm the sewer system, sending dirty untreated water into the Bay. When rainwater sheeting off concrete reaches a street tree basin or a larger sidewalk garden, the water can seep into the soil. This recharges our groundwater as the moisture filters itself through the earth in a natural way.

A Gem on Sanchez Street

One of the nicest sidewalk gardens in Noe Valley can be found on Sanchez Street between 27th and Comerford Alley. Around the young trees (Ginkgo biloba) and behind neat, low fences, an assortment of beautiful, rugged plants puts on a display all year long. In full bloom now are the dramatic kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos), surrounded by our native seathrift (Armeria maritima) and fresh-faced, drought-tolerant daisies.

Another flourishing sidewalk garden, the one that was the model for Just for Fun, is located at the corner of Day and Noe streets. A few blocks away, on Valley Street between Noe and Castro, a lush row of trees and hedges has created a bower that nearly hides the sidewalk.

If you want to see the ultimate potential of sidewalk gardens, step outside the borders of the neighborhood and journey along Noe Street between Market and Duboce Park. There, the container gardens, planting strips, and mature street trees have transformed the urban strip into a park-like experience. Couples sit on benches, flowers bloom all year-round, and birds chirp and twitter in the trees overhead. City noises fade, and even the air smells fresher.

Neighbors Walk the Walk

Back in Noe Valley, a most ambitious sidewalk garden project took place last fall on Alvarado Street between Douglass and Hoffman. The block has always been tightknit, partly because the neighbors hold a barbeque each fall. This past year, one of the residents, Karen Klein, put out a sign-up sheet during the annual barbeque to find out which of her neighbors wanted to remove the concrete in front of their houses in order to plant gardens. An amazing 19 families were not only interested, but attended meetings, filled out paperwork, and chipped in on planting day. In November, the concrete was removed; the trees and plants went in on Dec. 8. Hats off to anyone who can get a city project done that fast!

An Urban Meadow

The Alvarado sidewalk gardens boast a wide assortment of plants, including lots of California natives. Many are now blooming for the first time, and the yellow blossoms of yarrow mix beautifully with swaying grasses where concrete lay just one year ago. "It was definitely worthwhile," says Klein. "I feel good every time I walk up and down the street. It's good for the planet, good for the city, and good for my neighbors."

The lovely and environmentally sensitive palette of plants from which the Alvarado neighbors chose is a tribute to the creativity of Doug Wildman, a representative of the non-profit Friends of the Urban Forest, which agreed to steer the neighbors through the city planning process. Wildman did everything from filing permits to arranging for sidewalk removal to showing up with a truck full of baby greenery on planting day. "We removed 1,565 square feet of concrete," says Wildman. "But the amazing thing was, it was most of the neighbors on the block. Along with the Friends volunteers, they transformed the whole block."

Friends Make It Easier

Friends of the Urban Forest will help anyone who wants to plant sidewalk trees--whether you are a single homeowner or a group of residents. However, its target range for shepherding a sidewalk greening project is about 20 families clustered around a block or intersection. (Contact Suzanne Gavin, FUF's outreach coordinator, at 561-6890, ext. 101, or go to Individuals who would like to do a sidewalk garden on their own should first call the city's Bureau of Urban Forestry at 641-2676.

These tree experts will tell you that late fall is the best time to plant in our climate. New plants use the coolest and wettest months of the year--December through February--to push their roots deep into the soil before enduring the stress of the dry summer months. That makes summer the ideal season to start the planning and permit process for a new sidewalk garden. n

Douglass Street resident Hilary Gordon teaches organic gardening at the nonprofit Garden for the Environment at Seventh Avenue and Lawton. You can meet her there on any open garden day: Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; or Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Fabulous Noe Valley Plant of the Month: Kangaroo Paw

Anigozanthos, or kangaroo paw, comes all the way from Australia, but it is appearing frequently now on Noe Valley sidewalks, such as this one on Sanchez Street near 27th Street. Its bright, fuzzy flowers (see fenced-in area, to the right of the staked tree) come in red, purple, green, and yellow, and attract hummingbirds. Tough and dramatic, the kangaroo paw is a fabulous plant!
--Hilary Gordon